Norton: Missouri’s State Grape Harbors Juicy Little Secrets
On the trail of a classic American grape
Several of these Ste. Genevieve wineries, and other wineries throughout Missouri, are growing the Norton/Cynthiana grape, which was named the official state grape of Missouri on July 11, 2003. The story of Norton is a classic American tale, rife with mystery, plot twists, colorful characters and groundbreaking discoveries. The lawmakers’ designation last year was just one more development in a long and captivating history.
There is some disagreement over where Norton first popped up in America. Some people swear that it appeared here in Missouri, in the foothills of the Ozarks. By contrast, many scientists and vintners point to the area around Richmond, Va., as the place of origin. Everyone agrees, however, that Norton is a “real American grape,” a plant native to this side of the Atlantic.
Norton, Vitis aestivalis, was first recorded in 1823, boasting one of those classic 19th century names – “Norton’s Virginia Seedling.” It seems that one Daniel Norton of Richmond sent some cuttings of the eponymous plant to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the former president. These were planted at Monticello, becoming perhaps the first Norton vines to be grown under controlled conditions.
Soon afterwards, the plant made its way to Missouri, and by 1860 it was recorded in the town of Hermann. Well adapted to sweltering Midwestern summers, the grape became very popular in the area. Several nurseries along the Mississippi River began selling seedlings, especially in and around the tiny town of Bushberg, just east of Pevely. Catalogs from 1870 proudly advertised Norton, which by that time had already become one of Missouri’s most popular grapes.
In the 1920s, prohibition shut down the entire American wine industry. European wines regained preeminence on the world stage, a position they have been loath to relinquish ever since. But now, with American wine making a comeback, Norton is gaining momentum. “It has made a remarkable recovery,” noted Laszlo Kovacs of the Mid-America Viticulture and Enology Center, located in Mountain Grove, Mo. He specifically praised Norton as an “American grape that can be made into a premium-quality wine.” He’s not the only one in on this secret – today, Norton is the most widely planted red grape in the state.
Is it Norton or Cynthiana?
Although the fruit has many fawning admirers, they cannot agree on what to call it. In the late 1800s, a grape discovered in Arkansas was given the name Cynthiana. It was sent to vintners in Hermann, who deemed it a separate species from Norton, which was already under cultivation at the time. Today, many people still swear that Norton and Cynthiana are different. In 1992, to settle the dispute, Bruce Reisch of Cornell University took samples of the two grapes from 10 local vineyards. DNA analysis revealed the study specimens to be genetically identical. Still, both names persist, a fact acknowledged by the Missouri state government in calling the grape “Norton/Cynthiana.”
Juicy little secrets
At Chaumette Winery in Ste. Genevieve, owner Hank Johnson smiled as he talked about Norton’s past. He was grinning because it was a good story, but also because he knew the best part of the story was yet to come. Recent scientific investigations have revealed that this modest little fruit harbors a number of truly amazing secrets.
The first of these is a chemical compound called resveratrol. This chemical is present in the skins of all red grapes, but some studies suggest that Norton has unusually high levels of it. That is good news for Norton drinkers, because resveratrol has been proposed as a solution to the “French Paradox” – the question that asks why the French, who eat a diet high in fat, have low cholesterol and a low rate of heart disease. It seems that the chemical prevents plaque deposition in the arteries, and it may even flush the deposits out. Some scientists even claim that there are now two ways to prolong your life. The first: Eat a low-calorie diet. The second: Drink red wine for resveratrol.
Norton’s other secret is that, as it turns out, resveratrol is a blessing to grape growers as well, for it may help defend the plant against invasion by microorganisms. Johnson called Norton “the most naturally disease-resistant grapevine ever evaluated.”
The resistance process is similar to that of the human immune system. Surveillance genes in the plant are constantly on the lookout for harmful fungi. After they identify a potential invader, a regulatory cascade ensues, and disease-resistant genes switch on. Norton is at a full defensive state only 10 minutes after it comes under attack. By contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon does not reach full readiness until 30 minutes have passed. This 20-minute window makes all the difference between a healthy vine and a sick one.
From Mountain Grove, Kovacs noted, “I don’t want to make the impression that resveratrol alone is responsible for all this resistance – but it certainly plays a part.” Of course, this scientific process has a real-world impact. At Chaumette Winery, Johnson sprays his white grapes with fungicide every two weeks. He has sprayed his Norton vines once in the last two years.
While the grape might be highly disease resistant, it still has one problem. All wines contain two important acids – tartaric and malic. The latter is a particularly rough, bitter acid that causes an unpleasant sensation in the mouth known as mid-palate bite. Unfortunately, malic acid in the Norton can be double the amount of tartaric. In order to deal with this problem, Chaumette and the other wineries around Ste. Genevieve have adopted an innovative solution, one which goes by an equally creative name.
All of the Norton grapes in Ste. Genevieve grow on a trellis called the Smart-Dyson Ballerina, named for its inventor, Richard Smart, an Australian scientist known as the “flying vine doctor.” The trellis is a simple vertical structure. Its shape allows maximum air penetration of the vines and, most importantly, it allows the grape clusters access to high amounts of direct sunlight.
This exposure to sunlight is critical to creating a well-balanced Norton wine. Research has shown that the plants actually respire excess malic acid in the presence of sunlight. Sure enough, when Norton grapes are trellised on Smart-Dyson Ballerina, the tartaric and malic acids balance. The difference stands out in a taste test of two wines made from Norton grapes grown on different trellises. The Norton grown with a Smart-Dyson Ballerina trellising system has no mid-palate bite.
Smart-Dyson Ballerina, however, is not the only system that yields high-quality fruit. At the celebrated Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, winemaker David Johnson explained that they have been successfully growing Norton for years on the Geneva Double Curtain, a Y-shaped trellis used throughout Missouri.
Unfortunately, the Geneva Double-Curtain is quite labor-intensive, and Stone Hill must employ a team of people to do shoot positioning every year. At such a large winery, this is becoming more and more difficult, so they are slowly abandoning their old trellises in favor of a single-wire cordon system. Johnson assured me that the change did not arise out of dissatisfaction with fruit quality. “It’s simply easier to deal with from a logistical standpoint,” he said. “In many ways you can get good-quality grapes on most systems if you manage them properly. It comes down to what system you can manage most effectively.”
For all its curiosities, Norton, as America’s “real” grape, holds a special place in the hearts of growers all over the country. Jennifer McCloud of Chrysalis Winery in Virginia, whose vineyard is the largest producer of the grape in the world, plans to create a Norton society. McCloud’s mission, she said, is to “celebrate the homecoming of Norton” and “restore [it] to world renown.” Given the reverence for the grape around here, she should have no trouble drumming up support.
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